When Taylor Swift recently announced her Southeast Asian leg for The Eras Tour, fans saw the limited dates and knew they were trouble. Singapore was the only stop, and snagging a seat can be — to borrow her lyric — a nightmare dressed like a daydream. This is a scenario Swifties know all too well, but Ethan Lin was not just going to sit on the bleachers. The CEO of Klook, the fastest-growing Hong Kong-founded travel booking platform in Asia-Pacific, saw it as a partnership opportunity to tap into entertainment tourism, offering not just a hot ticket to the US singer-songwriter’s coveted show but also accommodation, hotel stays and bundle experiences to complete one’s trip to the Lion City.
Identifying potential, building battle-hardened confidence and commanding a breezy authority that takes a young, roving team through a projection of barrelling growth — this is a script Lin, a Yale School of Management graduate and former vice-president of Standard Chartered Bank’s hospitality and real estate investment division, is familiar with. In fact, it was this aptitude of spotting opportunity that convinced him to co-found Klook with investment banker Eric Gnock Fah and software engineer Bernie Xiaokang Xiong in 2014.
It has been nearly a decade since Lin and Gnock Fah decided to start a booking platform after they were dismayed by a frustrating vacation. While exploring Nepal with a group of friends in 2013, the pair wanted to go paragliding but had to carry thousands of dollars in cash as the activity operator was unable to accept credit cards or digital payments. A light-bulb moment struck and an average traveller’s desire to check off a bucket list turned into a unicorn start-up that raked in capital and investments in the millions from world-renowned names such as Sequoia Capital, SoftBank Vision Fund, Matrix Partners, Goldman Sachs and TCV.
With a team of more than 1,300 across 20 offices worldwide, Klook’s meteoric rise is boosted by the trend of free and independent travel (FIT) and rapid adoption of mobile apps, which account for at least 70% of its bookings. In Malaysia, a tech-savvy and media-hungry demographic make up a sizeable and steady part of that statistic.
“We launched here around 2017, and this bustling hub has turned into a crucial operational centre for Southeast Asia due to what we call ‘triangle capabilities’. First, there’s great language talent as locals are able to speak up to four different kinds. Second, nature, cultural hotspots, heritage sites, food and beautiful beaches make up a variety of interesting attractions. And lastly, the geography is so strategic it contributes to a robust inbound market.
“Malaysia, with an ever-expanding appetite for domestic travel be it to Thailand or Vietnam, is what we categorise as a ‘mainstay’ or ‘solid’ market. You won’t see a threefold increase or sudden surge of customers, but it has a stable momentum that ensures solid, long-term growth,” says Lin.
Success, as history taught us, did not always present itself as a low-hanging fruit. By every measure, the coronavirus pandemic decimated the travel industry for nearly two years, crippling booking platforms and furloughing workforces.
“I never thought I would see negative revenue in my life,” he admits.
Although Klook scrambled to remain relevant by offering cooking and yoga classes online when the world shut down, these were not viable means to keep the brand afloat. The real lifeline only came when it pivoted to introduce car rental services, which eventually grew into a second pillar for leisure travel.
“Our car rental service drummed up business for the company because staying behind the wheel still allowed people to sightsee and go places safely despite the threat of Covid. Even when the market slowly reopened, flights were too scarce, visa requirements were strict and ticket prices were at least 40% more expensive than in 2019.
“But we’re seeing an uptick. Malaysia has a decent population size and its GDP (gross domestic product) level has reached a point where people see travel as a necessity and a discretionary expense they are willing to maintain. Plus, its demand for car renting is one of the largest in Southeast Asia, Japan and even Australia, perhaps because Malaysians have a strong driving culture.”
A travel stasis induced by the pandemic is only going to engender a fiercer rebound as people are tackling their bucket lists with big trips that are more distant, elaborate and unique. This is good news for Klook, which logged more than 100 million trip bookings and doubled its user base from 2019. Nearly 530,000 experiences — five times more than the activities offered pre-Covid — are now available on the platform.
With eager holidaymakers raring to go, Klook is constantly improving its interface and user experience to make bookings less chaotic and prevent any customer service snafus. In an attempt to localise its services further, Klook launched a Bahasa Malaysia platform in February, which has already gained 20% site traffic and a 95% increase in Malay-speaking users.
Localisation is more than just looking inward, Lin points out.
“Take the car rental service. It’s impossible for any Malaysian to book a car service in Japan because everything is in Japanese. But we have localised the system in a way that a traveller can pay through local banks and merchants such as Touch ’n Go, read the reviews that have been translated and get customer support in four different languages. And because we have a great tech infrastructure aided by AI (artificial intelligence), we are also able to globalise Malaysia by integrating its information seamlessly across various countries within our network in 16 different languages.”
Now that Taylor Swift has filled the blank space of bridging music tourism, will Klook diversify its business model to include, say, luxury travel or standalone exclusive experiences?
Lin, who watched his competitors attempt a similar climb with immediate success and not long after, a titanic wipeout, has no such plans because they are not scalable for a platform service.
“There will be VIP experiences such as fast-track lanes at theme parks or local attractions but we’re still going to stick to what we do best, and that is offering customers a seamless way to discover exciting activities and places at the touch of their fingertips. We are very clear about our DNA.”
Ethan Lin recommends a few under-the-radar places to visit and things to do.
Swim with dolphins in Mauritius
These sea mammals pose an ecological significance on the island. Travellers can observe and interact with them under responsible and sustainable guidelines.
See the active Taal Volcano in Tagaytay, the Philippines
The popular holiday town south of Manila has a cool climate, perfect for venturing outdoors to catch a glimpse of the active volcano surrounded by Taal Lake.
Island snorkelling in Quy Nhon, Vietnam
Discover marine life and vibrant coral reefs in fascinating colours when you head to Hon Kho island.
Go scuba diving in Koh Tao, Thailand
Koh Tao, which means “Turtle Island”, has attracted divers from around the world with its numerous dive shops and schools catering to enthusiasts of all levels.
Mingle with the Bajau Laut in Semporna, Sabah
Watch this tight-knit community build stilt villages on water and learn more about their customs, traditions and handicrafts.
This article first appeared on July 3, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.